When Christian Weißgerber was a new recruit in the German army nine years ago, he never hid the fact that he was a neo-Nazi. He hardly could. He had one swastika tattooed on his knee, another on his shoulder, and a third on his inner arm – not exactly subtle in an environment where group showers are the norm. But the 28-year-old — who says he has since grown out of his Nazism — says the tattoos helped him break the ice with some comrades. “I was accepted at once,” Mr. Weißgerber recalls.
Stories like this aren’t new. A leading member of the NSU, a neo-Nazi terror cell that murdered immigrants over a six-year period between 2000 and 2006, was also trained by the German army (called Bundeswehr), despite evidence he was a neo-Nazi.
The army isn’t an easy topic of conversation in Germany. As a society, Germany has worked hard to atone for its Nazi past, and is rightly proud of its democratic institutions, including its army. At the same time it has long been an open secret that neo-Nazis are among the soldiers. When an officer was arrested in April on accusations that he was planning a neo-Nazi attack against leading public figures, the topic burst into the public debate.
The officer’s plot was elaborate and bizarre: Franco Albrecht posed as an asylum seeker from Syria and schemed to attack politicians and then lay the blame on refugees, prosecutors claim. Remarkably, Mr. Albrecht was actually granted refugee status by German immigration authorities, despite speaking no Arabic. His plan only unraveled when security at Vienna Airport found a gun he had hidden in a toilet cubicle there. Within weeks a second soldier was arrested in connection with the plot. At the same time, internal proceedings were opened against two senior officers who allegedly knew about Mr. Albrecht’s views but did nothing.
Whenever he talked politics, he was careful enough to talk about “peoples” and “traditions” rather than “races.” And he never aired his views in front of superiors.
The controversy grew from there. Why were some army barracks decorated with Wehrmacht memorabilia? Why are some even named after generals in the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era army? A consensus has formed in recent months that far-right ideologies do exist in the Bundeswehr. The question is how widespread the problem is, and whether the army brass has done enough to fight it.
If you believe official figures, extremists constitute a tiny minority in the army. Only 63 cases of suspected extremism have been recorded among an active force of 180,000 soldiers over the past 12 months. Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, insists that extremists are the exception rather than the rule.
Florian Kling, an active soldier and spokesman for the Darmstädter Signal, a soldiers’ organization, knows better. Most soldiers do enlist to protect the democratic German constitution, he concedes. But there are also soldiers who believe in the superiority of the Aryan race, and others who are embittered by what they perceive as a lack of gratitude for their service on the part of the German public, he adds. Many of these people slip through Bundeswehr’s rigid hierarchy, he thinks.
He cites the case of Franco Albrecht as a textbook example. “There were superiors there who knew he was a right-wing extremist,” Mr. Kling says. But they passed responsibility up the chain of command “until the problem seeped away, and nothing was done.” Mr. Kling thinks the army needs to do much more to turn young soldiers into responsible citizens. “That includes knowing when to act against enemies of democracy, and knowing when loyalty to comrades and officers no longer applies.”
Christian Weißgerber, the former neo-Nazi, remembers well the educational classes he had to take in the Bundeswehr. One of his teachers barely opened his eyes during sonorous lectures, and even the unpolitical soldiers switched off, he says. For a long time he felt no pressure to change his neo-Nazi attitude, probably because he was good at the rest of soldiering. He could march 30 kilometers in three hours, and was so fit that he was assigned to carry the 15-kilogram machine gun on every march, lightening the load for the rest of his unit. His comrades loved him, he says.
Whenever he talked politics, he was careful enough to talk about “peoples” and “traditions” rather than “races.” And he never aired his views in front of superiors unless he was convinced they wouldn’t object. But then he got into a fight with a roommate who was untidy. That roommate “spilled the beans. Suddenly I was faced with a disciplinary hearing for being a Nazi.”
As punishment, he was transferred to a new unit and grounded in the barracks for a few weeks. All the while, however, he was allowed to continue his weapons training. Eventually he was kicked out, although he doesn’t know why. When Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen talks about a “failure of leadership” in the Bundeswehr, that’s probably the sort of case she has in mind.
Why Germany’s army took a long time to separate itself from its historic roots.
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel, a sister publication to Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org